Tee Season


“Hi, Dorkwad.”

OK, I suppose that’s not the greeting you expected—particularly not when it comes out the mouth of an adorable little woodland animal. But that’s the greeting you’ll get from It’s Happy Bunny, a popular and cheerfully cruel line of T-shirts, stickers, notebooks, and other teen accessories, all featuring a harmless-looking rabbit that flings such vitriol as “Whatever, You Moron” and “Run Along and Die Now.” Not surprisingly, someone failed to see the humor in It’s Happy Bunny: namely, a Boca Raton retiree mortally and loudly offended by a T-shirt sold by Sears that read, “Seriously. Old People Have Got to Go Now.” “The children of today don’t have good role models as it is,” she complained to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last month.

Sears pulled that particular It’s Happy Bunny shirt out of its stores in the end, which was no small decision to make. T-shirts are big business—in fact, economist Pietra Rivoli argues in her recent study The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy (Wiley), they are the epitome of industrialization and international trade. The Industrial Revolution began with British cotton textile factories, and little wonder: Through the early 1800s, half of Britain’s exports were cotton goods. Our own era of empire means that, bolstered by the finest subsidies and ag tech that pork barrel money can buy, the United States maintains a fearsome lead over the rest of the world in cotton production. A single acre of West Texas land now produces enough cotton for a Chinese factory to produce 1,200 T-shirts. These blank shirts, returning to the U.S. for a wholesale cost of $1.42 after steep tariffs, then get silk-screened, live out their sweaty lives, and are cast off for about 25 cents each to the secondhand
mitumba markets of Tanzania, where residents of Dar es Salaam can puzzle over a cute rabbit telling them to cram it.

The beginnings of the T-shirt are traditionally ascribed to American sailors in World War I; the newly created shirt allowed ease of movement and quick drying. But the tee received its big boost from returning soldiers in the 1940s, after military servicemen took to wearing the eminently practical white cotton tees. Throw in Brando’s sweaty T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean’s iconic white tee in
Rebel Without a Cause
, and you had the making of a fashion that would fully blossom with the wild and unruly growth of tie-dyes, iron-ons, and silk screens by the late 1960s.

That, at least, is the pop mythology. The tee’s actual history, though, is a little more complicated than that. Fashionable colored T-shirts were being sold on Fifth Avenue as early as 1931 at the B. Altman department store: “The T Shirt becomes respectable—actually smart,” they boasted in the Times. By 1951, before Dean and Brando had brought their white tees to the big screen, Life magazine was already gushing over such elaborate T-shirt couture as a tee woven to resemble houndstooth tweed.

And while Happy Rabbit’s slogan “You Suck and That’s Sad” seems straightforward enough, it turns out that this too has unexpectedly deep roots. The conventional wisdom in textile history is that slogans on T-shirts grew out of the pre-war practice of college athletic departments stenciling, say, “Property of Virginia Tech” on their athletic shirts. But I was astonished to discover this headline while paging through an old Chicago Tribune from June 10, 1897:

MOTTOES ON REVOLVING SHIRT FRONT. Flippant Youth May Now Display Prominently the Phrase,‘There Are No Flies on Me.’

It seems that Victorian hipsters realized one hot summer day that the octagonal celluloid shirt-bosom, which you could revolve around to display different designs, made for a handy personal billboard. “No Flies on Me” was the casual kiss-off of the moment, the “whatever” of 1897 slang; and so with a few strokes of a pen on their shirtfronts, these Chicago smartasses created a defining fashion of modern life. But the strange thing is just how inevitable the slogan shirt’s invention was. It was a direct descendant of a fad that had consumed America for the entire previous year: the slogan pin-back button.

Flippant youth at work again? Hardly. The enameled-tin button, suitable for sloganeering on your shirtfront or backpack, started in 1896 with a bunch of old cigar-chewing Republicans. The newly patented bauble was snapped up by Meyer Bimberg—a sometime embezzler, political gadfly, and Harlem theater impresario—when he got a hot tip at the 1896 convention that William McKinley was going to announce Garrett Hobart as his running mate. Bimberg printed up 100,000 of the newfangled buttons emblazoned with their faces; when the nomination was announced, he’d beaten everyone else to the punch, and “Bim the Button Man” instantly made his name and fortune.

Message buttons soon followed, though they weren’t exactly in-your-face sentiments. One of the first ones simply read, “I Am for Sound Money.” You can guess how long that sort of sobriety lasted. Within months, High Admiral Cigarettes and its ilk were including promotional pin-backs in every pack, and they weren’t exactly of the Sound Money variety. Kids immediately showed up at school with what the Brooklyn Eagle aptly termed “advertisements for their lung destroyers,” and by the fall of 1896 teachers, parents, and newspaper columnists had a new craze to get in a tizzy over.

“Boys and girls neglected their lessons in comparing qualities, quantities, and styles of badges,” the Eagle reported amid a crackdown on badges by Hoboken educator Edward Russ. “Mr. Russ examined some of the mottoes and concluded that such inscriptions as ‘Set ‘Em Up Again,’ ‘You Make Me Tired,’ ‘I’m Somewhat of a Liar Myself,’ ‘If You Love Me Grin,’ and ‘I’m Out For a Good Time’ were not the best things in the world for school children to think about.” The following week a Catholic school in Brooklyn joined the attack on “immoral” badges. The craze gave the media plenty of grist: Newspapers gleefully reported how one boy stabbed another in a fight over a button and how a tyke swallowed a cigarette pin-back and got it lodged in his large intestine.

Amid the inevitable back-lash came the equally inevitable attempt to commandeer buttons as a force for good by embossing them with Sunday-school sentiments. “Let Us All Be Friends,” pleaded one—a pleasant thought, though hopelessly outgunned by rivals like “Get Off the Earth, Your Time Is Up.” Even as the Eagle thundered against school yard badge pushers “supplying children with vulgar, yes, indecent motto buttons,” they found newer and smuttier buttons appearing among “the idle and the vicious, the young men who loaf in Fifth Avenue.” These cunningly appropriated that year’s campaign buttons by featuring McKinley or Bryant on one side and “a vile epithet or viler picture” on the other.

Nefarious cigarette badges became legion. One website maintained by pin-back enthusiast Randall Whitaker has tracked down hundreds of early slogans, from the snappy “Put an Egg in Your Shoe and Beat It” to the intriguing come-on “I Make My Own Ice.” By the time you get to “Quick Watson, the Needle,” it’s pretty easy to see how Victorian parents were driven up the wall by these things.

Not much has changed. Every year brings its own share of fretting over T-shirts, the latest student sent home for fashion crimes. The slogan T-shirt comes and goes and comes back again, as do the T-shirts and the slogans
themselves. Click over to everythingaustralian.com.au, and you can still find this curiously familiar-sounding T-shirt: “There Are No Flies on Me, Mate.” It may be an Australian shirt in the 21st century, but it’s the direct living all-cotton descendant of that first slogan shirt from Chicago. They’re a permanent part of modern life, and one could do worse than to simply follow the advice on one Victorian pin-back that I keep at my desk:

Paul Collins’s new book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (Bloomsbury USA).